One of the beautiful things about high school sports is how much a team can improve in the course of just a few months. A slow start or a midseason lull is not a death sentence. Hit your stride at the right time, and you can rise to meet the big moments on the postseason stage.
Northeast boys basketball lived it this winter. The Eagles’ season came to an end against a superb Reservoir High School team in the 3A East region final on March 8, as the host Gators ultimately scored a 70-56 win, but Northeast’s 12-13 overall record tells the story of a team that fought through a loaded regular season and came out ready to bust the tournament bracket.
“We got here this year, and I hope they don’t settle for that,” said Northeast coach Roger O’Dea. “I hope they remember this feeling and buy in next year throughout the season and the offseason, and I think they will. I know they will.”
Getting to the region final — the statewide Elite Eight — was an outcome no one would have predicted when the playoffs began. Northeast entered the postseason two games under .500 at just 10-12, having endured a few struggles and a few more close losses.
Therein was a hidden strength: Northeast had played well even in defeats, including a 56-55 loss to 4A East finalist Meade. The 4A opposition slate of Meade, Old Mill, Glen Burnie, Broadneck, Annapolis and others — what O’Dea termed “the gauntlet” — hardened the Eagles into fearless competitors.
“It gets you battle-tested,” said O’Dea. “We were in a lot of our games all year.”
Once the playoffs began, all the 3-seed Eagles did was take the bracket and set it on fire. Northeast traveled all the way to Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, outside Ocean City — a 240-mile round trip — on March 4, and eviscerated the No. 2 Seahawks in a 65-46 rout. Jaleel Petty connected on four 3-pointers in the win and led all scorers with 16 points. Senior Brandon LeBarron scored 12 points, and junior Jaylin Albury finished with 11 points, 10 assists and 4 steals. Brennen Volkman also had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Keishon Thomas scored 8 points and had 4 rebounds, while Trent McNeill played sensational defense and finished the game with 2 points, 4 steals and 4 assists. Darrell Sheppard, Olimade Ajayi and Stephen Haley all finished the game with 2 points each as Northeast executed their game plan mercilessly and played excellent team basketball.
The Seahawks were playing at home and had a twin-towers pairing of 6-foot-10-inch big men and a 6-foot-5-inch point guard; Northeast’s comparatively diminutive roster largely relies on speed, passing, shooting and strong guard play.
“To come out there and do what we did to Stephen Decatur? I mean we just booted them off the court right from the start,” said O’Dea. “We just really pressured them, beat them by 20.”
To keep the season alive, the Eagles had to cross back over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge less than 48 hours later for a tilt with the region’s No. 1 seed, J.M. Bennett, on March 6. Against the Clippers, Northeast rebounded from a slow start and overcame a late deficit to win on a last-second basket by Albury, who drove the lane, put up a floater that missed, grabbed his own rebound and laid it back in for a momentous and thrilling 61-59 win.
“We come out down 6-0 to Bennett, and then we turn around and go on an 8-0 run, didn’t lose the lead until the last minute, battled through some adversity with some calls down there and came out on top,” said O’Dea. “It shows it takes a lot of effort.”
LeBarron scored 11 points in the first quarter, 17 in the first half and finished with a team-high 21. Thomas “put the team on his back,” in the second half, said O’Dea, scoring 11 of his 13 points after halftime, including two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. Albury’s 12 points included the game-winning basket and came with 6 assists. Volkman scored 10 points to go with 7 rebounds. McNeill, a sophomore starter, played strong defense again and contributed four assists, while Sheppard and Ajayi both came off the bench to contribute 2 points apiece.
Having traveled 368 total miles to achieve two wins, the Eagles were running on fumes by the time they were going for their third win of the week at Reservoir on March 8. The Gators were a complete team and, frankly, superior. Athletic forward Josh Odunowo had a career night with 29 points, 23 rebounds and 5 blocks, while sophomore sharpshooter Aria Ameli hit five 3-pointers in the first half and Kaden Toler hit another two.
The thing is, Northeast still was right there to win it. The Eagles hung in the game much to the annoyance of the Gators, making a nuisance of themselves at every turn and refusing to go down. Twice they battled back from double-digit deficits to claw to within eight or seven points in the third and fourth quarters. Petty sparked the team with two triples in the fourth quarter that cut the lead to eight points, while LeBarron scored a team-high 14 points on an array of nifty drives and floaters. Albury (10 points), Thomas (10) and Volkman (8) shared a balanced scoring load, and McNeill scored 4 points on two dazzling layups in the fourth quarter.
Reservoir eventually closed it out — the atmosphere of the home gym was positively lit throughout the night, and the Gator crowd spilled gleefully onto the court at the final buzzer, the region title theirs for the first time since 2013.
“This game shows them the intensity on defense they need to play with,” said O’Dea. “We need to play a little bit harder every possession. We can’t take any possession off. They had too many weapons, and they hit their shots, so you’ve got to give credit where credit is due.”
Northeast’s story was cut a little short, but the Eagles’ accomplishments are in the books.
LeBarron, who finished tied with Will Clark (NHS ’16) for the school’s single-season record for 3-pointers with 63, said the well-worn tale of Pasadena teams going to the Eastern Shore to die was a point of pride for this year’s Eagles.
“I think that every year Northeast or Chesapeake team goes down to Stephen Decatur or Bennett, and they always lose,” said LeBarron. “[Decatur and Bennett] always think they’re going to beat us. For us to go down there and get two wins on the Eastern Shore shows a lot about how we came together at the end of the season, because it seems every year one of the Pasadena teams is going down there and losing, so to change that feels nice.”
Albury said the team was unburdened by high expectations.
“We weren’t supposed to be here. Nobody expected us to be here,” Albury said. “I don’t even think our school expected us to be here. After every game we won, they were surprised that we got that far.”
Thomas said the team had the resiliency to overcome a subpar season last year and trials throughout this year to band together.
“Last season we really did not have a good season,” he said. “My senior year now and how we played now, I really love it, because everybody started to become a family. We all bought in. We had some loose bolts, but we definitely tightened them up during playoffs. That really carried us to win those two games. We’ve got good teammates, and we all help each other bring good energy to the games, and that’s what helped us get this far.”
With starters Albury and McNeill returning and the pipeline of Northeast basketball continuing to strengthen, the Eagles have confidence they could be celebrating a trip to the state’s Final Four one of these years coming up.
“For the seniors, I’m going to miss them a lot,” said Albury. “We’ve got a bright future, and we’re going to continue the culture.”